What was she thinking? : notes on a scandal

by Zoe Heller

Hardcover, 2003





New York : H. Holt, 2003.


Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has known none but the most solitary of lifestyles until new teacher Sheba Hart joins St. George's. Starting by sharing lunches, then family events, the new art teacher draws Barbara into a touching confidence. Unbeknownst to their colleagues, however, another relationship blossoms meanwhile: Sheba has begun a passionate affair with an underage male student. When the details come to light and Sheba falls prey to the inevitable media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend's defense, revealing not only Sheba's secrets but her own.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cestovatela
If good characterization is one of your literary turn-ons, then Notes on a Scandal is a book you cannot miss. The book is the story of Sheba and Barbara, both frustrated teachers in a low-performing London school. Sheba is a 40-something art teacher, good-hearted and surprisingly naive, who inexplicably begins an affair with a 15-year-old student. Barbara, her best friend and the novel's narrator, is in her sixties, struggling with the loneliness brought on by her frosty demeanor.

What makes this novel a masterpiece is Zoe Heller's mastery of "show don't tell" writing. Barbara offers almost no exposition about herself, but just from her word choice we can guess exactly what kind of person she is. There's more exposition about Sheba, which makes her slightly less fascinating, but her dialog really resonated with me.

Unlike many books heavy on characterization, the plot of Notes on a Scandal never falters. Wondering what will happen to Sheba's ill-conceived relationship makes this book quite a page turner. The last line is chilling, one of the best I've ever read. Heller gives us just enough information to feel satisfied, but the ending is sufficiently open-ended to let readers continue the story in their imaginations.

Bottom line: Great characters, perfect ending, insightful (but not trite) message about love, friendship and self-delusion. Recommended to all.
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LibraryThing member elliepotten
Hmmmm. This is one of those books that would be wonderful for a book group - so much to discuss, so much to say! - but when it comes to writing a review, it's hard to know where to start. This extraordinarily accomplished novel focusses on two teachers, Barbara and Sheba, and their unlikely friendship. While Barbara is a retirement-age spinster, traditional and set in her ways, Sheba is a younger, free-spirited pottery teacher, new to the school and to the profession. The book is entirely told through Barbara, in the form of a kind of journal of her relationship with Sheba and the fall-out from her new friend's passionate affair with a student at the school.

Despite the scandal of the title relating to Sheba, her illicit relationship is almost a secondary concern, forming the centrepiece for the whole book yet never really feeling like its true heart. It's not glossed over exactly, but it's not as important as I'd expected. Instead, the novel is very much about Barbara. She is one of the most complex, unpleasant yet strangely sympathetic characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter. I think everyone knows someone like her. Her 'notes' on Sheba are almost sinister in their obsessive detail. Every conversation, every circumstance, is painstakingly transcribed, mulled over, analysed and ultimately reflected back onto herself in a sickening display of self-importance. She is the prying curtain-twitcher, the pompous grandmother, the unreasonable old lady that everybody loves to hate. Yet underneath all this, the reader gets a glimpse of a lonely and slightly bitter woman who is, at some level, very much aware of her own faults, even as she tries to deflect them away in blind denial. There is a self-pity and naïvety underlying everything she 'writes' that makes it hard to truly dislike her as a character, even as the reader instinctively shies away from her. She is what makes the novel so compelling yet so strangely painful to read.

I can't believe it's taken me so long to finally read this book. It's not as easy a read as it seems on the surface, with its compulsive attention to detail and thought-provoking themes, and it's definitely not a book that leaves you with a smile on your face and a sense of having really enjoyed it - yet it is absolutely superb in its execution and deserves every ounce of praise that has been flung its way. And on a personal note, reading it at last means I can finally watch the movie adaptation, which has been sitting in its cellophane for months! Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Lukerik
The best book with an unreliable narraator that I have read. Morally ambiguous and you're never quite sure who the predator is, and who the prey.
LibraryThing member RuthieD
So many things were hard to read for the fact it's so spot on about things.. the comment about the Rosary being one of the many :-)
LibraryThing member alexrichman
It's possible to sell this as a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about a fortysomething teacher's affair with a secondary school pupil, but it's just as much about the creepy, unreliable narrator's obsession with said teacher. A riveting plot related to us by a distinctive and unnerving character, who will surely be remembered for decades to come.… (more)
LibraryThing member eleanor_eader
This is, at its core, a novel about obsession; the narrator’s for her young colleague Sheba Hart, and Sheba’s for the fifteen year old pupil with whom she is having an affair. There is something slightly lunatic and sad about these two women; At 60, spinsterly, closeted lesbian (closeted, or not inclined to admit it in her notes, or maybe just unaware of her own tendencies, it’s cleverly left for the reader to judge) Barbara pins all her hopes of finding a connection, of no longer being alone, on a married woman who is already having an potentially disastrous affair. Sheba, meanwhile, devolves from naïve and vulnerable to being a blinkered, romantic idiot, ignoring the danger of imprisonment, the likely breakdown of her family, even the damage she is doing to Stephen, the boy whose crush on her withers into casual, almost reluctant sex.

Even though there is little redeemably likeable about snide, bitter Barbara or the object of her attention, there’s nothing off-putting about the story itself, which plays out like a train-wreck in slow motion, neatly written in Barbara’s convincing yet distancing voice; the reader might feel pity for her, or dislike her intensely, but we cannot help but agree with her astonishment at Sheba’s actions. After a while, her affront becomes our affront, as we are drawn into the minutiae of concern about every aspect of the affair.

A very readable, if bleakly gossipy book. I had to turn off the movie halfway through, because I could not stand to watch Dame Judi Dench very cannily portray Barbara – I like Judi Dench too much to associate her with the character, and she was doing an unsurprisingly fantastic job of it, it was undoubtedly brilliant casting – but disassociating her from the character made the story easier to read than to watch. It gets under your skin, this one, reminding us that humans are fragile and foolish and inclined to be unkind when we are thwarted.
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette."

This was a surprisingly multi-layered book. Initially thinking that this is a novel about tabloid titillation concerning an affair between a middle aged,mother of two,teacher and one of her male pupils it becomes so much more, a critique on class and loneliness which then turns to stalker-ism.

Bathsheba Hart is a middle class 41 year old woman of beauty who starts work as a pottery teacher in a London comprehensive turning male heads as she does so but whilst her male colleagues merely admire from a distance 15 year old Steven Connolly,the son of a taxi driver living on a local council estate, who makes his move thus starting an affair between the two. However, the story of the affair is not revealed by one of the participants but by Barbara Collett,a sixty year old spinster and history teacher who befriends Sheba.Barbara's life is empty shared only with an ageing cat who begins to live her life through Sheba, revelling in the latter's rolls behind the pottery kiln and al fresco sex on Hampstead Heath with Steven marking so much so that when she decides to write down an account of the affair she marks every significant event with a gold star. Sheba is married to a controlling man 20 years her elder and has a frosty relationship with her own mother and 17 year old daughter, who when forced to make decisions for herself generally seems to make poor ones regressing to a love-sick teenager,mooning outside Steven's bedroom window,ringing him late at night and becoming ever more desperate as the affair begins to wane.When news of the affair becomes public and the daily press begin to report its more lurid details Barbara takes on the mantle of self-proclaimed guardian and spokesperson of the poor sinner who is shunned by her own family thus cementing her control over Sheba, a prospect that she seems to relish.

On the whole the novel's language is crisp and sparing and not without an element of pathos that it is not hard to note that Heller's background is in journalism.Generally I felt that all the characters were well written.

In the past I've read both Lolita and Death in Venice where I've felt sorry for the young victim but in this case I certainly fail to feel that Steven was in any way harmed by having an affair with an older,more experienced woman in fact part of me couldn't help thinking, lucky sod! This double standard is actually remarked upon within the book so is not perhaps that surprising really but it still feels odd to have a woman make the point.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
As Barbara, the narrator, nears retirement from teaching in a London school, Sheba, a new art teacher, arrives. Barbara takes some trouble to develop a friendship and to discourage Sheba other potential friends. She keeps notes about Sheba that eventually include her love affair with a fifteen-year-old student. These notes form the story. Nasty people are plentiful: Sheba's husband, her daughter, her mother, the school principal, other teachers, even Barbara, that the book's success is all the more amazing. It's hard to appreciate that these unpleasant characters can hook the reader but combined with the psychological twists of jealousy, obsession, shifting loyalty and variations of love, you have a winner, albeit a creepy winner.… (more)
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Good in the beginning: about a love affair between a teacher (female) and her male 15 year old student, as observed by an older, slowly revealed as a lesbian, teacher. It would have been better with more suspense about the reliability of the observer - and this could have ameliorated the rather flat ending.
LibraryThing member carmarie
I've never read a book written in this way before. I loved it. It soon became a fast favorite of mine. I enjoyed the dynamics of the main character and why she was so desperate of love and affection, although, her outward personality deflected it.
LibraryThing member DoraG
The tone of this book is disturbing throughout, but in a way that compels you to finish it. I kept putting it down unsure of whether I would ever finish it, but in the end, I was glad I did. I am intrigued to see the film too, as I can see how Dame Judy and Cate Blanchett could slide into the main roles.
LibraryThing member brokenangelkisses
Well written, gradually revealing a narrator whose extreme loneliness commands far more sympathy than the version of this story offered by the film. The last sentence is chilling but Barbara's plotting does not prevent us from wondering at Sheba's behaviour.
LibraryThing member woollymammoth
Looks like trash, but really well written, great charactisation a great book, even if book main characters are deeply unpleasent.

Sheba is a pottery teacher who embarks on an affair with her fifteen year old pupil. The narrator is her 'best friend' who she's now living with as her marriage has broken down.

Through flashbacks it describes how Sheba meet the narrator and started the affair with the pupil, and how the secret got out.

I felt I could really see and smell the school concerned, and I'm not sure if it was because it was like my school or because it was well described.
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LibraryThing member SmithSJ01
I really did enjoy reading this book and I'm pleased I had it recommended to me. However I felt there was something distinctly lacking at the end - it came to an abrupt hault and as a reader who'd actively engaged with the characters Barbara and Sheba I still needed some questions answering. Often, this is good in a text because I then can try to develop answers myself but on this occasion I felt let down.

The character Barbara I felt was more interesting than Sheba, you could spend hours and hours wondering why Sheba had done what she did, however the character of Barbara was something else. I do feel the centre of the novel is Barbara and as I've said, she was brilliantly portrayed.

Had I not felt dissatisfied with the ending this may have received a 5, as Zoe Heller has created an intriguing woman in Barbara. The efforts she went to to forge a relationship after weeks of patient waiting were heartwrenching to read. The death of her beloved cat, whilst quite pathetic to some people, brought home how empty her actual life was.

I was left wanting to know more about Sheba's relationship with her husband - what had happened after he found out, what happened with the actual relationship etc. Sadly this wasn't the case. I do feel the centre of the novel is Barbara and as I've said, she was brilliantly portrayed.

A very well written piece of fiction, that in places I felt I was reading a true account!
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LibraryThing member cassieguthrie
Well done character study of a woman (Barbara) who you despise for her manipulative ways and pity (in equal measure) for her terrible loneliness. Movie was also excellent.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Spoiler possible.
Despite her character flaws (or perhaps because of them) I found Barbara to be one of the most unique and compelling narrators I’ve ever read. She was unlike anyone else. Bitter and quick to find fault but wryly amusing in her merciless observations, she puts everyone except herself under scrutiny. I didn’t like her, but I did agree with some of the things she said and I understood where she was coming from. It wasn’t a good or healthy place, but I understood how she got there. Sometimes I wanted to smack her or shake her into being more human.

Clearly, she had an enormous crush on Sheba. When Sheba formed another friendship first, Barbara wickedly tells us how unworthy that other friend is. As soon as she can, Barbara worms Sheba away from the inappropriate and unworthy friendship and corrals her for all her own. Of course none of this is done overtly – it is all oblique and Sheba senses none of it. She is too naive to see her own manipulation.

Because Barbara is so disconnected from humanity in general, she cannot understand what would compel Sheba to embark on such a forbidden love and she does not. Barbara guesses at motive but can’t give us any depth of feeling. She is truly clueless. All she can offer us are observations of Sheba’s behavior.

In the end, she betrays Sheba to a colleague who she thought had designs on her. In reality, the man only asked Barbara out on a date so that he could ferret information from her about Sheba. He has a crush on her too. Barbara kicks him to the curb for Sheba and then stabs her in the back. This way Sheba will be abandoned by all and truly need Barbara in her life. Normally Barbara is an afterthought. Someone to pay attention to when there is nothing else. This stops when Barbara betrays her. It was a shock to me and I read the line 3 times before moving on, but I really should have seen it coming.

Now in the end Barbara is mother to Sheba even after Sheba discovers her betrayal. They await her trial together, Sheba forever tied to Barbara.
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LibraryThing member punkypower

Didn't hate it. I've just read some really fabulous books so far this year, and "Scandal" left me flat. There was something seriously lacking. A string of events and facts, but nothing to tie them all together or keep the reader glued.

The story is about two teachers at a private London school: one is the lonely spinster. The other is a new pottery teacher with a family at home. The pottery teacher has an affair with a 16-year old student. She is ultimately caught. The story is told from the point-of-view of the spinster friend, who we learn more about than the scandalized teacher. That's honestly all I got out of it. :(… (more)
LibraryThing member ruthseeley
Saw the movie first and loved it. Maybe that's the formula that works, because reading the book then seeing the movie so rarely does.
LibraryThing member sallyaf
Took FOREVER for anything to happen. The prim, self-important narrator was agonizingly dull.
LibraryThing member Annica83
The story is interesting but I didn't like the characters at all in this book, or the way the story was written. (No one would write a journal that way!) I kept reading anyway, but I wouldn't recommend "Notes on a Scandal" to anyone. Perhaps the movie is better?
LibraryThing member herschelian
Ostensibly this novel is about the affair between a married woman teacher (Sheba) at a large inner London school and an adolescent male pupil, the scandal it causes when it is discovered and the consequences arising from it. However it is also about the relationship between Sheba and a fellow teacher, a lonely older woman called Barbara who is the narrator of the novel. Barbara, who is Sheba's only confidant, has a growingly manipulative attitude towards Sheba who seems unaware of Barbara's behaviour and how it will impact on her life. I felt that this relationship was by far the most chilling and interesting aspect of the book. It is well written, and raises some thought provoking issues>… (more)
LibraryThing member LynleyS
I loved this book - it was a page-turner for me. I feel I've known a character just like Barbara. She was a spinsterly teacher, of course. I feel the author MUST have taught in a high school just like this one before, because I have, and it is just so accurate.
LibraryThing member indygo88
While not exactly what I was expecting, this was a story of obsession on more than one level. Told from the secondhand point of view, it's hard to know by the end of the story if the narrator is entirely reliable -- she's a bitter, egotistical, & haughty older woman retelling the story of her co-worker's obsession with a teenage student. I found myself not particularly liking either character very much, for different reasons, & I think this dulled my enjoyment of the novel. This was fairly well written, but just not as fulfilling as I'd hoped.… (more)
LibraryThing member dreamyflo
I read to the end - although some days I felt like closing the book for good. The plot is basically good, however, I found the actual writing style to be weak. The pace a little too slow for my own liking. Nonetheless I did have to keep dipping in again all the way to a very interesting outcome, I think the ending was probably far better than the opening pages.… (more)
LibraryThing member lilithcat
I wasn't certain I was going to like this book when I began it. It starts out in the present tense, a conceit that I generally dislike. However, it soon changes, as the author alternates tenses to differentiate between the narration of past and present events. And then it works.

The story is of a forty-ish school teacher who has an affair with one of her students, and is told by a sixty-ish school teacher who has befriended her. As the book starts, the affair has already been discovered and Sheba is out on bail pending trial, living in her brother's home with her friend Barbara. Barbara is writing a journal about the events and her relationship with Sheba, and that is how the story unfolds.

All of Heller's characters are realistic, from the inarticulate 15-year-old with a crush on his teacher, to the teacher herself, new at the job, anxious to do good and make good, to her rebellious teen-aged daughter, to the pompous headmaster and the spinster friend. It is the character of Barbara, however, who is most interesting, despite the rather stereotypical "repressed lesbian spinster with cat" image. She is very clever, dead on with her analysis of other people and their actions, yet totally oblivious to her own inappropriate behavior and full of self-justification. She is at once sympathetic, and not sympathetic, a very neat stunt to pull off!

The same is true of Sheba. The knee-jerk reaction is to think, well, she should have known better than to have it off with a student. But the situation is far more complicated than that. As Barbara muses, "The sorts of young people who become involved in this kind of imbroglio are usually pretty wily about sexual matters. I don't mean just that they're sexually experienced -- although that is often the case. I mean that they possess some instinct, some natural talent, for sexual power play. For various reasons, our society has chosen to classify people under the age of sixteen as children. In most of the rest of the world, boys and girls are understood to become adults somewhere around the age of twelve. . .We may have very good reasons for choosing to prolong the privileges and protections of childhood. But at least let us acknowledge what we are up against when attempting to enforce that extension. Connolly was officially a minor, and Sheba's actions were, officially speaking, exploitative; yet any honest assessment of their relationship would have to acknowledge not only that Connolly was acting of his own volition but that he actually wielded more power in the relationship than Sheba." That is often the case.

A very good read.
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